by Julie Ball, STAFF WRITER
December 23, 2005
MARION — McDowell County leaders want to challenge a state decision to de-certify the county’s 2-year-old voting machines as the state tries to implement new election laws in North Carolina.
McDowell, Buncombe and counties across North Carolina are struggling to comply with the new law, approved by the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year. The idea behind the law is to boost voter confidence.
“If votes are lost on an electronic machine, we want a paper backup,” said state Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. “And second, we want to make sure no one is entering our machines electronically and making changes. The people are demanding it.”
But county officials say the state isn’t giving them enough time, money or choices when it comes to selecting new equipment.
The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners on Thursday sent a letter to the governor asking him to convene a special session of the General Assembly to deal with the problems.
The new law, known as the Public Confidence in Elections law, requires the counties using electronic machines to use only machines that provide a paper record that the voter can verify. The law also requires the state to approve vendors that sell machines to counties.
Earlier this month, the state de-certified voting machines in McDowell and other counties, meaning it’s illegal to use them after Jan. 1.
“Nobody was meeting the requirements,” said Larry Leake, state elections board chairman. “Now, the only alternative is either to comply and buy new equipment that complies with the law or to have an old-fashioned, paper ballot election.”
Some counties may be forced to go back to paper ballots and hand counts.
“Many will have no choice,” McDowell County Manager Chuck Abernathy said.
The new machines must be in place in time for the May primary, and counties must decide what system they will purchase by Jan. 20.
McDowell officials say they just spent more than half a million dollars buying new machines two years ago. The county replaced its old punch-card system following new federal legislation and the major problems with the 2000 presidential election.
“We were told that the equipment satisfied the laws that were in place at that time,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy said McDowell commissioners held a special meeting this week and authorized county staff to work on challenging the decertification of the machines. County leaders also will be sending letters to state lawmakers and North Carolina’s governor.
Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene said she would recommend her county consider similar action.
“Our machines are fine,” said Buncombe County Commissioner David Young. “In watching over the taxpayer dollars, there’s no need for us to rush out and buy new machines.”
Young supports the idea behind the law — creating a paper record that voters can verify when they cast their ballot and that can be used as a backup if there’s ever a problem with a machine.
But he and other county officials say they are worried about the potential costs to the county, the time frame set out by the state and the lack of choice when it comes to certified election equipment vendors.
The state certified three vendors to provide voting equipment — Election Systems & Software, Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems. Two have since withdrawn.
Sequoia, which provided Buncombe County’s existing electronic machines, withdrew as a potential vendor.
And Diebold also has withdrawn, according to an e-mail sent to county election officials Thursday.
Mark Radke, director of marketing for Diebold Election Systems, said the company couldn’t comply with the state’s requirement to provide source code and the names of the developers of third-party software like Microsoft used by the company. Radke said the company doesn’t control or have access to that information.
Diebold has about 20 customers in the state, he said.
Counties will get some federal dollars to help purchase new machines, but Young and Greene said it probably won’t be enough.
Greene said Buncombe County might have to come up with $2.5 million to $3 million.
“It isn’t a small amount of money, and we’re having to come up with in the middle of a budget year,” Greene said.
Asheville resident Tom Rightmyer, who has served as a poll assistant in Buncombe County, doesn’t think the new machines are needed.
But Rightmyer, who went to a recent demonstration of the machines, said if the county must change its voting system, he would prefer an optional scan system where paper ballots are scanned into a machine and counted.
Leake said the state elections board is simply enforcing the new state law.
“The North Carolina General Assembly has set forth the schedule. The state Board of Elections has no choice in that schedule,” he said.
Henderson County had planned to go with Diebold machines, but Elections Director Beverly Cunningham said Thursday she’s not sure what the county will do now.
“After the 2000 election in Florida, we knew there would be changes. We have been waiting until the state set the laws on the voting equipment,” she said.
Leake said vendors were certified by “a group of technical experts with very stringent requirements.”
Counties with optical scanning systems like Haywood County also are looking at new systems.
“Everybody is struggling,” said Robert Inman, with the Haywood County Board of Elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Contact Julie Ball at 828-232-5851 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
photo, credit: Steve Dixon/staff photographer, Board of Elections technician Curt Presley does routine maintenance on one of about 250 voting machines stored in a county building downtown. The county owns about 500 of the old machines.
• Buncombe County — Has used electronic touch screen machines purchased from Sequoia Voting Systems for about nine years. Buncombe County has about 500 voting machines.
• Henderson County — Began buying electronic voting machines in the 1980s. Now has 160 Danaher ELECTronic 1242 machines.
• Haywood County — Uses an optical scan voting system. The county tested out the MicroVote electronic system in this fall’s municipal election.
• McDowell County — In 2003, bought electronic machines from MicroVote.
• Transylvania County — Using electronic voting machines since 1997. The county has 84 machines.
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